Sandwiched between a small sushi bar and a Chinese restaurant in Valley Village is Al Amir, a Lebanese café that opened early this year. This part of the San Fernando Valley has always had a pretty good community of Middle Eastern restaurants, with bustling big-city places like Cedar House and Alcazar dominating much of the scene. There were also the fragrant skewers of shish tawook served with lighter-than-air garlic sauce at Hayat's Kitchen, and the earthy, cumin-laced kafta kabobs popular at nearby Skaf's.
If you're familiar with Lebanese cooking, you'll probably be familiar with much of what's served at Al Amir. In fact, the chef is a close relative of the family that runs Sunnin in Westwood, so it's no surprise that the two menus share more than a passing resemblance. The mezze here, essentially Middle Eastern tapas, are worth the visit alone: ultra-creamy baba ghanoush zapped with an intense smokey flavor; the pungent cheese and olive oil mixture known as shanklish ; or kibbeh nayeh, a rich beef tartare mixed with cracked bulgur, diced onions and mint.
Every table seems to have at least one mezze sampler, stocked with things like falafel; the little cheese-stuffed spring rolls called rekakat; football-shaped kibbeh stuffed with meat and pine nuts; spinach- and sour sumac-stuffed pies called fatayer; and a bracingly fresh tabbouleh salad. The cooking at Al Amir tastes a bit sharper than at Sunnin -- the meats a bit juicier and smokier -- and the beef shawarma pita might be one of the finest examples you'll find outside of Dearborn, Mich.
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The most exciting aspect of Al Amir, though, is probably the special board just above the cash register. One day it featured a fascinating Lebanese stew called mloukhieh, made from okra leaves and served with a bowl of onions soaked in red wine vinegar; another time it featured moudardara, a stir-fry of lentils and caramelized onions served over a bed of aromatic rice. The pièce de résistance was a special desert called halawet al jeben, made from pieces of pale cheese dough stuffed with sweet cream and drizzled orange-blossom syrup and candied rose petals -- it's the perfect sidekick to a strong cup of cardamom-laced coffee.
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